Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

Almost forty-five years have passed since the 1973 clash between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs. I can still recall the excitement and anticipation around the televised match. Along with millions of viewers worldwide, I watched as both players competed for the winner’s trophy, a cash prize of $100,000, and lifelong acclaim. As for the backstory, I knew very little about their personal struggles and the level of misogyny that existed within the tennis establishment.

Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Ferris have created an entertaining and multi-layered film that explores and exposes those issues while demonstrating equal sympathy for Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). Both actors deliver stellar performances, worthy of their Golden Globe nominations. Hopefully, Oscar nominations will follow.

A feminist symbol, King didn’t hesitate to point out the disparity that existed within the sport: male winners received eight times as much as their female counterparts. But her complaints fell on deaf ears. In a patronizing tone, retired pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) justifies the discrepancy: “Men are more of a draw; the men are more exciting to watch…It’s not your fault. It’s just biology.”

Frustrated, King creates a woman’s pro circuit, sponsored by Virginia Slims Cigarettes. In a later confrontation, King faces down Kramer: “It’s when we want a little of what you’ve got, that’s what you can’t stand.” Off the court, King struggles with her sexuality as she vacillates between her marriage and a blossoming relationship with her hairdresser.

A chronic gambler, Riggs embraces his chauvinistic side, participating in a series of outlandish publicity stunts. Much of the humor in the film comes from Steve Carrell’s excellent portrayal of the over-the-hill hustler who likes to gamble big; Riggs actually wins a Rolls-Royce in one bet. On an ironic note…the chauvinist appears to be living off his wealthy wife.

The face-off in the Houston Astrodome is staged by stunt doubles shot from a distance with occasional glances at the stars. I enjoyed watching the audience reaction and was especially moved by one of the large signs: “Billy Jean for President.”

A well-crafted film that has relevance in our contemporary world.


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Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

Inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman celebrates the birth of show business with an empowering storyline, eleven original songs by the Academy-Award-winning lyricists of LaLa Land, and spectacular choreography.

Hugh Jackman dominates practically all the scenes as he assumes the role of the larger-than-life visionary, who rose from humble beginnings to create a worldwide sensation. A long-time fan of Jackman, I found him irresistible as he sang and danced in his red impresario’s coat and top hat. Definitely a contender in the award season ahead.

I was also impressed by the supporting cast.

Michelle Williams delivers an excellent performance as Barnum’s behind-the-scenes wife, Charity. Possessing a strong, clear voice, she comes across as supportive and adventurous, choosing to leave behind a privileged background to follow Barnum on his entrepreneurial journey.

Zac Efron embraces the role of playwright and society boy Phillip Carlyle. An unlikely collaborator, Carlyle is a quick study, stepping in whenever Barnum leaves to pursue other artistic paths. His budding romance with an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya) provides many tender, bittersweet moments. Their standout performance takes place in the empty circus tent when Zendaya flies on the trapeze as Efron tries to meet her partway, all to the haunting lyrics of “Rewrite the Stars.”

I was moved by the courage of all the “human oddities” that Barnum recruited for his “Museum of Curiosities.” My favorite–Lettie Lutz the “Bearded Lady”–played by Tony-nominee Keala Settle. Cringing from shame, Lettie reluctantly agrees to participate in the show and then uses her powerhouse voice to transform into a fearless Diva.

While the “real” story has darker undertones, director Michael Gracey has chosen to downplay those elements, focusing on the importance of diversity, encapsulated by P.T. Barnum’s philosophy: “Everyone is special, and nobody is like anyone else.”

A class act for the whole family to enjoy.


Movie Review: Molly’s Game

The storyline is a compelling one: an Olympic-class skier runs an exclusive, high-stakes poker game for a decade before being arrested by seventeen FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Insert Oscar-winning actress Jessica Chastain in the leading role and screenwriter-turned-director Aaron Sorkin at the helm and the movie becomes even more mesmerizing.

After suffering a devastating injury on the slopes, Molly Bloom, an Olympic hopeful, walks away from her small-town life and her father’s unrealistic expectations. Hoping to soak in the sun and have fun in Los Angeles, Molly ends up working as a personal assistant for an abusive employer (Jeremy Strong), who puts Molly in charge of organizing a weekly, back-room poker game populated by A-list actors, politicians, millionaires, and billionaires.

Under Molly’s supervision, the game grows exponentially as she adds more exclusive trappings: a suite in a luxury hotel, gourmet food, and expensive liquor. She also increases the buy-in, ensuring that she’ll make more in tips. In a recent interview, Molly revealed that her income in 2009 was over $4 million.

A run-in with Player X (Michael Cera) forces Molly to take her game to New York. There, she increases the buy-in to $250,000. While the clientele is still high-end, the game also attracts wealthy Russian gangsters who want a piece of the action. About this time, the FBI becomes very interested in Molly’s game.

Nominated for a Golden Globe, Jessica Chastain also deserves an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of this strong but deeply flawed woman. Her voice-over throughout the film skillfully anchors all the events from an early accident at age twelve to the handcuff scene to conversations in her lawyer’s office.

The supporting cast of male characters delivers award-winning performances. I was impressed by Idris Elba’s portrayal of Charlie Jaffey, the lawyer with scruples, who takes Molly’s case even though she’s broke and facing jail time.

Kevin Costner delivers an excellent performance as the hard-driving sports father and psychologist, who demanded academic and athletic excellence from his children. The skating rink scene provides a glimpse into his softer “dad” side.

Molly’s Game is more than just another poker movie. In fact, the Poker Princess aka Molly Bloom doesn’t even play the game.

A must-see film!


Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

While the reviews were mixed, with many comparisons made to Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of the best-selling Agatha Christie whodunit, I decided to approach the 2017 version with an open mind.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Instead, I was impressed with director Kenneth Branagh who also took on the role of Hercule Poirot. Donning an exotic mustache, Branagh delivers an excellent performance as the finicky Belgian detective, famous for solving everything from elaborate murder plots to uneven boiled eggs. The all-star cast includes Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, and Daisy Ridley.

The storyline follows Poirot from Jerusalem to Istanbul to a lavish train ride on the Orient Express. After an unpleasant encounter with gangster Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), Poirot retires for the evening. That night, Poirot hears strange noises coming from Ratchett’s compartment and later witnesses a woman in a red kimono running down the hallway. An avalanche occurs, causing the train to derail, stranding the passengers.

The following morning, Poirot learns that Ratchett was stabbed to death sometime during the night. While early clues suggest that Ratchett was murdered by a lone man, Poirot believes the solution to the crime lies within a single locked carriage containing twelve first-class passengers. As Poirot conducts his interviews, he uncovers a series of connections and coincidences related to a tragic kidnapping case.

Faithful to Christie’s tale, the convoluted plot will keep you engaged right to the end. As will the antics of the other passengers, especially husband hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) and exiled Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench).

Designer Alexandra Byrne captures the period beautifully with the lavish costumes, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos treats us to spectacular vistas of Jerusalem, Istanbul, and snow-covered mountain ranges…definitely Oscar-worthy achievements.

A stylish and suspenseful movie that will delight mystery lovers!


Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

The opening credit—Based on real events mostly—sets the tone for this delightful tale of affection between an aging queen and a handsome Indian clerk.

Twenty years after delivering a captivating performance as a younger Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, Judi Dench returns to the role and succeeds in capturing all the nuances of the bored, sharp-tempered monarch. At least, that’s how Queen Victoria appears at the beginning of the film.

The arrival of Abdul Karim, portrayed by Bollywood star Ali Fazal, changes everything. Ignoring instructions, Abdul boldly makes eye contact and kisses the Queen’s feet at a dinner commemorating the Golden Jubilee. Flattered, Victoria returns his gaze and brings him into her service.

A friendship develops as Abdul, now called Munshi (teacher), meets regularly with Victoria and offers a form of escape from her tedious duties. Fascinated, Victoria listens as Abdul introduces her to the foods, languages, and customs of India. Hoping to keep Abdul in England, Victoria arranges for the arrival of his burqa-wearing wife and mother-in-law.

Her family and ministers are not amused by this relationship. Comments are whispered about “Munshi mania” and “the brown John Brown” as members of the household plot to rid themselves of the royal interloper.

While history suggests a maternal relationship, there appears to be lust in Victoria’s eyes. As for Abdul, his motivations are never fully revealed. Was he smitten or simply scheming to curry more favor?

A well-crafted film worthy of several Oscar nominations.


Movie Review: American Made

Sporting feathered hair and flashing his irresistible smile, Tom Cruise takes on the role of airline pilot Barry Seal in this action-comedy that celebrates the greed and corruption of the late 1970s through 1980s.

While Seal is a highly skilled airman, he is also reckless. To relieve his in-flight boredom, he flips a few switches that cause turbulence and endanger the lives of crew and passengers. On land, he sneaks Cuban cigars in his luggage.

His antics capture the attention of CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who offers Seal a lucrative monetary deal. As a contractor for the CIA, Seal will spy on and deliver guns to Latin American revolutionaries.

Assured that everything is legal, Seal embarks on his first mission and attracts the attention of drug cartel members, who persuade him to take on an additional courier role. Vaguely aware of the risks—“I do tend to leap before I look”—Seal becomes known as “the crazy gringo who always delivers.”

Seal makes an obscene amount of money that ends up in the most unlikely hiding places: closets, cupboards, car trunks, and underground crypts. All the while, his wary but devoted wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) busies herself with making babies, counting and spending money, and not asking too many questions.

Authentic news footage of several U.S. presidents, among them Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, remind us this film is based on a true story. Barry Seal existed, and he played all sides, running guns and drugs between the United States and Latin America.

An entertaining film with many thrilling moments and, of course, Tom Cruise.


Movie Review: Stronger

Based on the best-selling memoir by Jeff Bauman, this movie tells the story of the 28-year-old chicken roaster, who lost both legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and then went on to become a symbol of Boston Strong.

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as the conflicted, often angry, young man, who was not ready to be anyone’s hero. His life and that of Erin Hurley, his on-again/off-again girlfriend, brilliantly played by Tatiana Maslany, were permanently changed by the horrific events of that April day.

While Jeff struggles with pain, Erin struggles with guilt as she tries to sort out her true feelings. Just how much did she owe an ex-boyfriend who had failed to keep his promises? And could she overlook the fact that the only time he did show up was at the marathon to cheer her on to victory?

Jeff’s family and friends, especially his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), provide much of the dark humor as they grapple with the aftermath of the accident and amputation. I found myself cringing each time Jeff fell or hit his head. In most cases, family and friends were nearby but otherwise occupied.

Director David Gordon Green chose not to sugar-coat any of Jeff’s challenges. Everyday activities—getting out of bed, using the bathroom, bathing—demonstrate the extent of Jeff’s limitations and pain. It wasn’t easy to watch Jeff move without legs and later struggle with artificial limbs. The special effects are impressive: Jake Gyllenhaal actually looks like he has no legs.

Green effectively uses flashbacks to provide glimpses into Jeff’s tortured state of mind. Raw scenes of the bombing and Jeff’s post-traumatic stress episodes remind us of the seriousness of the injuries. The slow but gradual emotional recovery provides several tear-jerking moments. My favorite scene–Sitting in his wheelchair, Jeff pitches a perfect first ball in a Red Sox game.

A must-see film!